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United States v. Puga

United States District Court, S.D. Texas, Laredo Division

December 24, 2019



          Marina Garcia Marmolejo United States District Judge

         Before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Suppress, which challenges “the detention, search and seizure of the Defendant's vehicle, its occupants, the Defendant and co-Defendant” (Dkt. No. 53).

         The Court held an evidentiary hearing on October 31, 2019. At that hearing, the Government introduced a recording of a 911 call and offered the testimony of Lieutenant Fernando Hernandez, Jr., Investigator Ramon Arambula, and Investigator Juan Molina of the Zapata County Sheriff's Office. Defendant introduced a video from a police body-worn camera but did not call any witnesses.

         Having carefully considered the evidence, the parties' arguments, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the Government has not met its burden to establish reasonable suspicion to stop, search, or seize Defendant. Therefore, Defendant's motion to suppress (Dkt. No. 53) is GRANTED.

         Background [1]

         On August 2, 2019, at 4:09 p.m., the Zapata County Sheriff's Office received an anonymous 911 call about a suspicious vehicle near the Falcon Lake Tackle Shop on Highway 83, just south of Zapata. The caller stated:

I don't know if it's really an emergency. I was coming up to the … Falcon Lake Tackle Shop, and … there's a white Lincoln parked on the side of the road. They had a bunch of trash thrown out of their car…. [T]here were four guys, and they're very, very suspicious guys. I pulled up and asked them about the trash that they threw out of their car, and one of them had a knife on him and he starts getting out and he starts picking up the trash and starts saying, “I'm sorry I'm sorry I didn't mean it I didn't mean it” and just acting very suspicious, but they drove off

(Dkt. No. 62-1 at 3, 8). The caller specified that the vehicle was an “older Lincoln” and stated that it was headed toward Zapata (id. at 8). He did not give his name, and the 911 system did not record his phone number or location (id. at 3, 8).

         The Sheriff's Office dispatched three patrol units, which consisted of Lieutenant Fernando Hernandez, Investigator Ramon Arambula, and Investigator Juan Molina, to search for the Lincoln (Dkt. No. 74 at 28). The officers were not given any information about the caller but only a general description of a car that had been “reported littering” (id. at 24).[2] About five minutes later, Hernandez spotted an older-model, white Lincoln parked in front of the Dollar General store on Highway 83, which was just north of where the alleged littering had occurred (id. at 10-11).

         Hernandez, who was in uniform, parked his marked patrol unit near an entrance to the parking lot. He could see “nothing unusual” about the Lincoln: it was relatively clean, displayed “regular license plate[s], ” and had normal windows and suspension (id. at 12, 29-31). Three men were sitting in the backseat with the engine idling, but no one was in the front (id. at 12, 31). The backseat passengers did not appear in any distress, nor did they try to “hide” or “cover their faces” as Hernandez approached (id. at 33-34).[3]

         Hernandez started “knocking pretty loud” on the Lincoln's rear driver-side window. The passengers, however, did not acknowledge him, which Hernandez “consider[ed] suspicious.” Hernandez “kept on knocking” on the window, yet the passengers continued to ignore him. Finally, Hernandez loudly “instructed them to open the door, and they opened the [rear driver-side] door” (id. at 13-14, 31-32).

         What followed is not entirely clear. On direct examination, Hernandez testified that the passengers were “sweating” and wearing clothes that looked as though they had “just crossed [the border].” Based on his training and experience, Hernandez concluded that the passengers were undocumented aliens (Dkt. No. 74 at 14).[4] The defense, however, introduced video footage from a police body-worn camera.[5] The video shows the backseat driver-side passenger wearing clean, white sneakers and otherwise dressed neatly in jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap. The other passengers do not appear disheveled either, though the video does not show them clearly (Dkt. No. 63-1). Confronted with this footage on cross examination, Hernandez agreed that the driver-side passenger did not appear sweaty or dirty. “If I'm not mistaken, ” Hernandez clarified, “the one in the middle [ ] was pretty unsanitary I think” (Dkt. No. 74 at 52).

         Hernandez proceeded to question the backseat passengers, who informed him in Spanish that the driver and front passenger were in the dollar store. At that point, Investigators Arambula and Molina arrived on the scene (id. at 14-15, 30). One of them parked behind the Lincoln, and the other parked “facing the side of the [Lincoln]” and blocking it in (id. at 30, 34). Hernandez advised them that the backseat passengers might be undocumented and told them to look for the driver and front passenger in the store (id. at 15, 55, 68).

         Zapata is a “small town, ” so it is “easy” for the police to identify people who do not belong there (id. at 75). When the investigators entered the store, they noticed two men, later identified as Defendant and co-Defendant Juan Manuel Martinez, in line at the cash register (id. at 69).[6] Molina observed that, when Defendant and Martinez saw the officers, they made a “small movement” in the direction of an employees-only office, as if to hide there (id. at 77).[7]

         Events then moved quickly. Arambula stayed by the door in order to “avoid anybody leaving, ” while Molina approached the suspects and immediately escorted Martinez outside (id. at 63, 78). Meanwhile, Hernandez entered the store after more officers arrived on the scene. He escorted Defendant outside right behind Martinez (id. at 15). As the suspects were being removed from the store, the officers asked which of them was the driver of the Lincoln. Defendant and Martinez began to accuse each other of ...

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